Driving Miss Daisy: The Forgotten Cobra Meant to Succeed the Ford GT

Photo courtesy Ford

Story by Howard Walker - Photography courtesy of Ford (Carroll Shelby images), Howard Walker (all others)

You can feel the ghost of Ol’ Shel still swirling around the cockpit. Listen closely and you might just hear his belly laughs amid the tortured screams of fricasseeing rubber from one of his smoky burnouts.

Or his “Aw, shucks” at the ground-shaking thunder of the big V10 as he spins the tach needle to the 7500 rpm redline in search of sub-4-second zero-to-60s.

Back in late 2003 and still feisty at age 80, Carroll Hall Shelby was doing what he loved most: hammering a Cobra around a race track. But instead of some big-block 427, there he was piloting a brand-new iteration, the Ford-built Shelby Cobra concept that weeks later would be one of the headliners at the 2004 Detroit Auto Show.

This was the car pitched to follow the just-launched Ford GT: a hip-high, 605-horsepower two-seater code-named Daisy. It borrowed many of the GT’s greasy bits to create a modern-day version of one of the most iconic sports cars ever made.

It was in 2003, at California’s Irwindale Speedway, that Shelby slid his 6-foot-2 frame behind the wheel of the concept and proceeded to do epic burnouts for a film crew while hammering around the short, half-mile banked oval at fairly insane velocities. The man was having fun in the car he’d helped create.

Sadly, despite universal pleas for Ford to build it, the modern-day Cobra never made it into production. And after its rapturous Detroit reveal and a few months of being schlepped around the auto show circuit, the Cobra Concept was mothballed and relegated to some “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-like storage facility, released for only the occasional static show appearance.

In Good Hands

Fast-forward to the fall of 2017, and Ford made the puzzling decision to auction off this irreplaceable machine. The last Shelby Cobra ever built. The last Cobra that Ol’ Shel was closely involved with before his passing in 2012.

Adding to the head-scratching, this one-of-one car didn’t roll across the block at Monterey or Scottsdale. Instead, it was consigned to a lesser-known auction house in Greensboro, North Carolina. The reason for the fire sale? Ford wanted to raise cash to help fund the restoration of the Ford family’s historic Fair Lane Estate in Dearborn.

The auction, however, was a huge crowd-pleaser in that Chris Theodore–former VP of product development at Ford, a good buddy of Shelby’s, the acknowledged father of the 2005 Ford GT, and the man who spearheaded the creation of the Cobra Concept–grabbed the winning bid.

Since that happy day, Theodore has been slowly bringing the iconic Cobra back to life. And today, we’re outside a nondescript warehouse in Livonia, Michigan, to get an exclusive drive in this, the last Shelby Cobra. Plus, we’ll hear from Theodore about what prompted him to go into pretty serious debt-we’re talking more than $825,000-to buy the car.

Seeing the Cobra in the fiberglass 15 years on from its debut, the snake has lost none of its visual exclamation. It’s still all broad shoulders, shapely rear end, bulldog stance and low, slammed-back windshield. And it’s still instantly recognizable as a modern-day Cobra with its iconic gaping mouth, blistered fenders and rounded door caps.

What sets the Cobra apart from so many so-called “concept cars,” which Theodore dismisses as “golf-cart-engined push-mobiles,” is that it was fully engineered to go into production. And built entirely in-house at Ford to show how components from the Ford GT could be used. It’s a serious piece.

Yet even today, you’d never call it a visual masterpiece. It’s much too short and stubby for that-more of a blunt instrument than a sexy, slender Cobra-of-old. The width-versus-length ratio sees to that. Remember, it’s only as long as a Miata yet as beamy as a Dodge Viper.

“It’s a car that brings back amazing memories for me,” says Mr. T. “Memories of working with Carroll and the fun we had. Memories of seeing him get behind the wheel of this multimillion-dollar concept at Irwindale and do ferocious burnouts forwards and backwards, then thrash it around the track.”

More likely, Theodore’s clearest memories of the car are of the terrifying kind: of nervously raising his paddle in that Greensboro auction room, blowing his budget less than a minute into bidding, and hoping beyond hope that he’d secure the highest bid.

“It was the most excruciating 5 minutes of my life,” he recalls. “Honestly, I went to the auction and set myself a limit of $505,000. That lasted about 30 seconds into the auction. And it just kept going up and up: $500,000, then $700,000, and suddenly it’s at $825,000. And here’s me thinking I was going to go in there and steal it.

“I turned to my wife, Tracee, and gave her a look of desperation. And she says, ‘You know, this is the one and only chance you’ll ever get to own this car. Go for it.’ Finally, the hammer came down, and the crowd went nuts. I’d bought Daisy. It was, without doubt, the scariest, most irrational thing I’d ever done in my life.”

Shelby Unshackled

This one-off retro Cobra Now lives with Chris Theodore a former Ford VP of product development. 

One of the main reasons Theodore thought he might steal the car was because it was a non-runner. And it was meant to stay that way. To prevent the car from ever being driven, Ford lawyers had sent down the edict that Daisy should be permanently immobilized.

That entailed welding the splines of the driveshaft inside the Cobra’s torque tube, then welding the coupler to the driveshaft, effectively separating the engine from the transaxle. For good measure, the inspection plate used to access the car’s torque tube had its bolt heads ground off and welded shut.

While the rear wheels could still turn, enabling the car to be towed to the block, the engine wouldn’t be providing drive to the rear any time soon. “It could have been a lot worse,” Theodore explains. “I’d been told the original plan was to pour concrete down the cylinders and lock up the engine.”

The first step post-auction was for Theodore to have Daisy trucked back to Detroit, where his buddies at Technosports in Livonia were tasked with making the Cobra drivable once more. It was Technosports that originally assembled the car.

It took a while to remove the access plate and replace the output shaft. Then the rear end was reassembled. The clutch and flywheel, worn from one too many Shelby burnouts, were replaced. So was the clutch fluid, which had turned to the consistency of Jell-O. A complete, new exhaust system was also fabricated and fitted, and the entire wiring system replaced.

“When we started smelling gas in the workshop, we found the fuel cell in the fuel tank had literally turned to dust,” Theodore explains. “That took a while to clean out.”

In Full Flower

Amazingly, the Cobra’s V10 was still running like a champ. Ace Technosports wrencher Mike Nowakowski went through it, doing little more than an oil- and-plug change.

The Cobra’s engine alone might be worth Theodore’s winning bid. It’s one of only four that were handbuilt by the Ford Advanced Powertrain team; its first application was under the hood of the Ford 427 concept sedan from 2003. The all-aluminum, 90-degree, 6.4-liter V10 cranks out 605 horsepower at 6750 rpm and 501 lb.-ft. of torque at 5500 rpm. It’s a thing of true beauty.

It’s mated to the six-speed, rear-mounted Ricardo transaxle from the Ford GT, with power channeled through the aforementioned torque tube. Incidentally, when that torque tube’s inspection panel was eventually removed, it revealed hidden-away signatures of pretty much every member of the Cobra’s design and engineering teams.

Now Theodore squeezes a button on the key fob, and the Cobra’s hood powers open to reveal the monster V10 nestled between two chassis rails milled out of shiny billet aluminum. But before you have the chance to gaze at this superbly dressed engine, your eye immediately flashes to the section of flat aluminum bulkhead on the passenger side: that unmistakable Carroll Shelby signature, written large in black felt-tip.

The continuation of the famed Cobra carries Carroll Shelby's seal of approval-or, at least his signature.

“We definitely need to find some way of protecting that,” Theodore says. “It’s great that it’s lasted so long, but it needs preserving. I definitely wouldn’t want to see it fade.”

The good news is that this iconic piece of Shelby history is now safely in the enthusiastic hands of Chris Theodore, who plans to show it off at cars-and-coffees and track days for fans to enjoy.

“It really is a dream come true to think that I actually own it. It’s one of the last cars I worked on at Ford. The car that brought Carroll back to working with Ford. The car that I had the most fun helping to create,” Theodore adds. “If only we could have gotten it into production.”

BEHIND THE WHEEL

Time to drive Project Daisy, the last Cobra project that involved Carroll Shelby. But first, a quick addendum: Our test route will be limited to the length of Autry Street, in front of the Technosports facility in Livonia. Daisy can’t officially be registered for the road, so we won’t be carving on-ramps on nearby I-96.

We pop the door, sink down into the cut-down Ford GT Sparco carbon-fiber seat, and get a grip of the chunky wheel in brushed aluminum and leather. The blue-leather-lined cockpit feels wide and accommodating-car owner Chris Theodore says it has more front legroom than a Crown Victoria. It also offers great visibility for the driver through the low-cut screen.

The broad, brushed-alloy fascia was obviously designed to impress auto show gawkers rather than serve as a serious production proposition. With circular instruments likely inspired by cool-at-the-time ’80s CD players, they definitely prioritize form over function and prove fairly useless at providing readable information.

At first sight, the hefty aluminum shift lever looks like it’s broken off and flopped limply over to the left. But it’s still attached and, in fact, perfectly positioned for an easy reach.

Ignition on, hit the start button, and the starter motor rattles like a ball bearing in a blender before the big V10 detonates into life. The throaty rumble at idle mimics Schwarzenegger gargling with roofing nails, while a stab of the throttle pedal sends the revs soaring with a spine-tingling snarl.

For a V10 it sounds glorious, urgent and muscley, a far cry from the original Viper V10 with its side-exiting pipes emitting the exotic melody of a UPS truck with a blown muffler.

We’ll do a couple of runs to get the feel of this big-biceped, 3200-pound projectile before we light the fuse. So, lever in first, our foot comes off the light, nicely progressive clutch pedal, and the Cobra rumbles away with the ease of a modern-day Mustang.

Now we squeeze the throttle, and instantly all 501 lb.-ft. of testosterone-enriched torque lunges the car forward as if it’s been released from some invisible catapult. In true Cobra fashion, this is one torque monster.

It keeps on giving too, pinning us back in the seat, 13-inch-wide rear tires struggling to contain the instant-on torque, squirreling nicely under the V10’s immense grunt. No wonder Shelby grinned so much during that Irwindale drive.

And what a noise. From a deep-throat burble at low revs to a full-on race car snarl, the Cobra has more voices than Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.” But there’s no lumpy V8 raggedness here; those extra two cylinders add real smoothness to the soundtrack.

For a transaxle car with a long remote linkage, the Cobra’s shifter slices easily through its well-defined gate. It may not have the surgical precision or short throws of a Miata’s stick, but it’s surprisingly good.

A little more enthusiasm off the line shows the Cobra’s potential. We roll away to preserve Theodore’s newly replaced clutch, then step hard on the throttle. The projected zero-to-60 time was in the sub-4-second range, and it definitely feels doable. The car just hurls forward, stealing our breath away. Thankfully, big vented Brembos from the Ford GT immediately shed speed when Autry Street comes to an abrupt end.

There’s no curvy back road in this Livonia industrial estate, so assessing the Cobra’s true handling traits isn’t going to happen. But the GT-sourced hydraulic rack offers plenty of feedback and has just the right amount of precision and heft. And over some of the lumpier bits of blacktop, the GT suspension componentry does a fine job of soaking up bumps.

All the time during this all-too-short sampling, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this isn’t some near-to-production development prototype, but a one-off show car. With some fine-tuning, redone instruments and modern-day equipment-airbags and a roof would be nice-the Cobra would have made a terrific low-volume $100,000 rolling tribute to the late, great Carroll Shelby.

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Comments
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GLK
GLK New Reader
6/3/19 6:16 p.m.

Not every iconic car needs to be reimagined. This AC Cobra rendition reminds me when the Italians created a new Lamborghini Miura concept. Proving some originals are as good as it gets. Cars are industrial art. Updating them is like trying to modernize a famous work of art. At best it’s not offensive. At worst it’s kitsch folly. This Cobra is the automotive equivalent of a ceramic Buddha with a clock in its belly.

Donatello
Donatello New Reader
6/3/19 8:37 p.m.

I don't hate the looks as much as GLK. It looks better than anything in my own garage, lol. And goes faster. And costs about 825 times as much as what I paid for my last car. 

Mr Theodore: please bring this car to the next drivers school where I will be instructing ;)

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